Backup your $h!^

After a family member nearly loses months of precious work to a hard drive failure, I contemplate the importance of a solid back up strategy.

Backup your $h!^

If there's one thing I take seriously in life its backups. There are three principles to which I adhere:

  1. My data is worth more to me than my money.
  2. All hardware fails, it's a matter of when, not if.
  3. Redundancy matters.

The first principle underscores all others. Money is a renewable commodity, the time and emotional effort spent creating content is not. If your data is important to you, don't cheap out on the products and services used to store it.

A good backup solution should be easy to implement, and have multiple levels of redundancy. Hardware fails, equipment can be stolen, houses can burn down. Think and prepare for the worst case scenario.

No excuses

Excuses are easy to make, and difficult to live with. You could be the busiest person on the planet. You could be a complete technophobe. You could be flat broke. You could think you something won't happen to you.

Believe, me I've heard every excuse, and none of them mean squat when your hard drive fails and you lose months or years of work. If your house burns down, your insurer can replace your laptop, but not your data. Hang out on any social media group for writers long enough, and you'll see many a poor bastard almost suicidal after their laptop died with no backup. You don't want to be that person.

If you are a creator, and don't have adequate backups in place, you are courting disaster, and when it happens the only person you can blame is yourself.

Cloud backup

For a writer in 2020, the best solution for most people is a cloud storage provider. They are very cheap, easy to use, and overcome most of the risks incurred when relying solely on local backups.

It doesn't matter what you use: DropBox, iCloud, OneDrive, Google Drive... pick one and use it. Many popular writing apps work in tandem with backup services, so that might sway your decision. For example Scrivener works with Dropbox, and Ulysses with iCloud. Microsoft Word works with OneDrive and Dropbox.

For the complete technophobe, consider working directly in Google Docs. This cloud-based word processor backups you work in the tiniest of increments, with data saved in Google's massive data centres. Google Docs is completely free to use, and is very capable Word replacement.

The biggest excuse I hear about not using a cloud provider is privacy and security. In my opinion, this is a consideration only if you a journalist working in hostile political situations.

For the rest of us, there's no excuse. Cloud service providers are not interested in reading your data, nor do they get to own it. They also spent more money on security than the annual IT budgets of many small countries. Besides which, most security issues are the fault of users. Use strong, unique passwords, and don't click links in dodgy emails, and you'll avoid 99% of the problems.

Unless you are highly technical (in which case, I'm not talking to you), you cannot compete with a Tech Giant's resources, and you cannot build a solution that matches their convenience or features.

Local backups

Locals backups are still a valid solution, particularly if you create video, audio, and high resolution graphics, or if your broadband is unreliable or slow.

Two forms of back up predominate: direct attached, or network attached.

Direct attached storage is a drive you connect directly to your computer, typically using a USB cable. Their big advantage is speed and cost. Connect via USB 3.0 and you can transfer gigabytes of data in a matter of seconds. Drives range in type, size and quality, from tiny flash drives, to mains powered 3.5" enclosures with multiple bays. Pick something that's convenient to use (for you), while offering a degree of quality from a reputable brand.

On a Mac, using a USB drive affords you the luxury of using Time Machine, which is drop dead simple and requires no user intervention once its setup and running. Time Machine creates a complete copy of your Mac in incremental chunks, allowing you to restore an entire drive, or an individual file you accidentally deleted.

Network attached storage (NAS) is a drive that lives on your network, with connection done wireless or wired (Ethernet). A NAS is actually a mini server (computer), and the better ones have multiple disks, and offer redundancy against drive failure using a technology called RAID.

If you are technically savvy, you can create a NAS from an old computer. But honestly, it's not worth the effort. A much better option is to buy a turn key solution from a company such as Synology. Such devices are compatible with Apple's Time Machine protocol, and come with software for Windows that provides PC users with a similar solution.

A cheaper option is to connect a USB hard drive to your router. Most routers have this ability, making a connected drive available to your network. While it's not as fast as a dedicated NAS, it's cheap and easy to do.

Note that local backups are still vulnerable to theft, fire or failure. You should consider an offsite backup option, like one of the consumer oriented services I noted above, or something like Backblaze or Amazon S3. Also, it's worth encrypting your local backups so that your data is safe even if you are robbed, as happened to me in 2019.

How I back up data

My fiction projects are backed up on two different cloud providers: DropBox and iCloud. I work in Scrivener, and I keep the working files in DropBox. This makes them available on my iPad and iPhone, which I always have with me.

Every time I open or close a project on a Mac, the files are automatically zipped and copied to iCloud. Once configured, no user intervention is required. The Windows version of Scrivener is similarly endowed with this feature. You could also elect to backup to another cloud provider, such as OneDrive.

My non-fiction writing is done in Ulysses, which automatically backs up and synchronises data using iCloud.

Everything related to this website - articles, images, code -- is stored in a Git repository and hosted on GitHub.

Important files, things like copies of my personal information like passports, drivers licence and birth certificates, are stored in DropBox. However, I add an extra layer of protection by encrypting them first.

Additionally, I also backup locally to external hard drives and I have a NAS, but this is mostly for used as a media server and offloading big project files. As of February 2020, the cloud is the backbone of my backup strategy, and I don't see that changing any time soon.

Concluding thoughts

At some point in your life you will experience some kind of hardware failure, or god forbid, something more serious and beyond your control. This summer, vast expanses of my country went up in flames. Last year, my house was burgled and computer hardware was stolen from my house.

Shit happens. It's up to you to plan for such contingencies.

There is no excuse for failing to back up you data. I've heard every excuse, but they all come down to laziness, ignorance or a stubborn reluctance to change. If you are in this camp, then that's really on you, and you need to change your ways.

You can back up your data with minimal cost and effort. In fact it's never been as easy as it is today. If you create anything on a computer, you need to have a robust back up and recovery strategy in place.